Taliban Agree to Let Fleeing Civilians Reach Kabul Airport, U.S. Says

Taliban Agree to Let Fleeing Civilians Reach Kabul Airport, U.S. Says

16:04 - Afghans had been blocked, beaten at Taliban checkpoints as group consolidates control of Afghanistan’s capital

The Biden administration said that Kabul’s airport was open for military and commercial flights and that the Taliban had pledged to permit civilians to reach the airfield, after Afghans seeking to leave Afghanistan found their way blocked by militant checkpoints.

The Taliban strengthened control over the capital on Tuesday and a political leader of the movement returned from exile. Military flights resumed as the U.S. sent additional troops to secure the U.S.-controlled airport’s perimeter, following two days of chaos there as Westerners and Afghans raced to escape the country.

However, as of Tuesday afternoon many thousands of Afghans who had been employed by Western embassies and nongovernment organizations in Kabul remained stranded and unable to reach Hamid Karzai International Airport for evacuation flights as the Taliban erected checkpoints at airport entrances, whipping and beating Afghans who attempted to cross.

A senior White House official said the Taliban had told the Biden administration that the group would grant civilians safe passage to the airport.

“We intend to hold them to that commitment,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters at the White House.

Mr. Sullivan also suggested that the chaos that unfolded at the Kabul international airport in recent days had been inevitable.

“When a civil war comes to an end with an opposing force marching on the capital, there are going to be scenes of chaos, there are going to be scenes of people leaving the country,” he said. “That is not something that can be fundamentally avoided.”

The Biden administration will conduct an internal review of the U.S. withdrawal and release the results publicly, Mr. Sullivan said.

“We’ll look at everything that happened in this entire operation from start to finish and the areas of improvement, where we can do better, where we can find holes or weaknesses and plug them as we go forward,” he said.

Earlier Tuesday, with Taliban checkpoints keeping people from reaching evacuation flights, some flights were leaving near-empty; a German military A400M Airbus, with a capacity of well over 100 passengers, took off Tuesday with just seven passengers aboard.

The head of the Taliban’s political office, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, returned to Afghanistan from exile in Qatar on Tuesday as the Taliban asserted control of the Afghan capital. Many stores reopened and traffic police returned to their posts.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid also emerged, holding a press conference in Kabul at which he promised that the country’s new rulers would respect the rights of women and minorities, within the framework of Islam, and protect foreign missions and nongovernment organizations.

“After we took over Afghanistan, the war in Afghanistan came to an end,” he said. “There is no longer any animosity with anyone.”

At the Pentagon, Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor told reporters that seven C-17 military cargo planes departed from the Kabul airport, lifting between 700 to 800 passengers. Among them, 100 were American citizens, the rest a mix of Afghans and third-country nationals, he said.

The U.S. military aims to increase that to as many as 9,000 passengers a day in the coming days.

“Time is of the essence,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters, referring to the Biden administration’s Aug. 31 deadline to complete the withdrawal. “We all share a sense of urgency here.”

The Pentagon said there had been no hostile interactions, no attacks or threats from the Taliban on U.S. forces or their operations at the airport. U.S. officials in Doha, Qatar, and at the Kabul airport have kept lines of communication open with Taliban officials and military commanders.

In Kabul, Taliban agents continued searching the offices and homes of Afghans affiliated with Western governments and organizations, collecting evidence. At the new checkpoints that sprang up in the city, they inspected residents’ smartphones for illicit content—and for communications in English.

Mawlawi Fathullah Madani, the new Taliban intelligence chief for Kabul, told the city’s residents that the movement now has full control. “Our security people are working everywhere,” he said in a video address. “A big change has come.”

Since entering Kabul on Sunday, the Taliban, who proclaimed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan when they first seized the country in 1996, have so far refrained from the kind of radical actions that brought world-wide condemnation in the past. They issued an amnesty for government officials and haven’t interfered with Shiite religious celebrations currently under way.

On Tuesday, female presenters reappeared on television channels, so far without Taliban retribution. In the city’s Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, four Afghan women held up signs demanding respect for women’s rights, as armed Taliban members halfheartedly urged them to disperse, according to footage of the incident.

The only known execution since the capital’s takeover was of Abu Omar Khorasani, the former head of Islamic State in South Asia, who was taken by the Taliban from an Afghan government prison and killed on the spot, according to officials. A photo of his body was later posted on social media.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, former chief peace negotiator Abdullah Abdullah and former Islamist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who initially allied himself with the Taliban but then reconciled with Kabul, have all remained in the Afghan capital after President Ashraf Ghani and most of his government fled the country on Sunday.

Mr. Hekmatyar, in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.’s Pashto service, said the Kabul-based politicians wanted to talk about sharing power with the Taliban, but didn’t have any details about how that would work. A more inclusive government—unlike the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate—could obtain international recognition and international aid.

Mullah Baradar, who is a Taliban co-founder, landed with other senior Taliban officials in Kandahar. The southern Afghan city is the group’s birthplace and its airport is fully controlled by the Islamist movement. It wasn’t clear whether Mullah Baradar would immediately proceed to Kabul for talks with other Afghan politicians.

Haroun Rahimi, an assistant professor of law at the American University of Afghanistan, which has suspended operations, said now that the Taliban are totally dominant, any new government that emerges will be of their choosing, rather than a more neutral interim setup. He said it was unclear whether the Taliban would be generous in their triumph.

“The non-Taliban side doesn’t have any leverage to force anything,” he said. “But if the Taliban exclude their opposition, if they don’t try to expand the domestic base of their support, they may be laying the seeds for a resistance to emerge against them.”

Unlike in the 1990s, where significant pockets of Afghanistan remained outside Taliban control, particularly in the Panjshir Valley and northeastern Badakhshan province, the Islamist movement this month seized the entire country and faces no organized armed opposition.

Only one prominent member of the deposed government, former Vice President Amrullah Saleh, has vowed to actively resist Taliban rule. “Useless caveats are finished,” he tweeted Tuesday. “JOIN THE RESISTANCE.”

Mr. Saleh added that, after Mr. Ghani fled Afghanistan on Sunday, abandoning his duties, the vice president has become the country’s legitimate caretaker president under the constitution. So far, few Afghans rallied behind this claim.

Salahuddin Rabbani, a former foreign minister from the country’s Tajik ethnic minority, currently visiting Pakistan, said that the Taliban would be judged by their actions rather than promises. He called for an inclusive and decentralized new political system, with elections to follow within a year, saying the Taliban were in power but not so far in people’s hearts.

“They have to include all ethnic groups in the government and that should not just be symbolic or for decoration,” said Mr. Rabbani, whose father, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated by the Taliban in 2011. “If they insist on the dominance of just one group, that formula will not succeed, people will rise up. They have taken geography quickly, but they can also lose geography quickly.”

The Taliban have previously indicated that they plan to centralize power, and they have never committed to holding elections. When last in charge, between 1996 and 2001, the movement’s leadership was almost entirely composed of Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.

Before the Taliban’s victory, the U.S. and other countries had been trying to convince the insurgents and the Afghan political representatives to form an interim administration, composed of people from both sides. That initiative never worked, in part because Mr. Ghani rejected Taliban demands to resign first, and in part because the Taliban stalled discussions about a road map to such an agreement, playing for time as their military offensive intensified.

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